Robert W. Wallace Jr.
Corporal, United States Army
Son recalls taking dad to dedication of World War II Memorial
Note: Bill Wilcox, a semiretired Punta Gorda Realtor and builder, took his stepfather, Bob Wallace, to the dedication of the World War II Memorial on Memorial Day two years ago. Wallace served with the 5th Special Brigade Engineers at Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy that began on June 6, 1944.
Corporal Wallace's commendations include: The Purple Heart, the Silver Star for gallantry, and the European Theater of Operation Ribbon with Copper Arrowhead for the invasion of France on D-Day. He lost both of his legs to a land mine during the invasion.
This is their story.
Mom and Dad met at Fisher Aircraft in Memphis, Tennessee, building planes for the war effort, just a few months before he shipped out. Dad came back from the war and married his own Rosie the Riveter.
Theirs were tender faces, sad in love and pain, all bursting with pride. Their sons and daughters escorted their special heroes to the World War II Memorial Dedication in Washington, D.C., on May 29, 2004.
The Red Cross patch caught my eye. She was wearing her original uniform and standing tall in filtered sunlight under a big oak tree, a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting. I shook her hand, thanked her and asked, "Where were you?''
"'France ... Normandy at first,'" she replied.
My Dad went ashore on Omaha.
"'Oh!' she said urgently. 'I have to talk to him.'"
She was one of those volunteer nurses who found herself in a hospital tent with the nearby sounds of battle and hundreds of dead and dying soldiers to comfort.
"'You could see the relief in their eyes when they saw the face of a woman. Well, I was just a girl then. There were so many wounded,'" she said.
Bob, my stepfather, was sitting in his wheelchair wearing his original uniform. As she approached him, there was no awkwardness, no pretext or shyness. They immediately fell into conversation, reunited after 60 years. Bob's two daughters and Sue, a neighbor from Little Rock, Arkansas, (where my stepfather lived) took photograph after photograph.
As these veterans moved around Washington's National Mall, they searched the crowd for a uniform, a face, a familiar shoulder patch or campaign ribbon. They met and talked. With World War II veterans dying at a rate of more than 1,100 a day, there was a feeling in the air that this dedication came just in time.
"Where were you? What unit? You were just to our left on the beach. How many? Yeah, I know!"
The sun over the mall filtered through a few high clouds. A jacket felt good in the shade. The whole affair had the tone of an outdoor church service with a few hundred thousand in attendance. People walked slowly; even the children were subdued.
When several old soldiers huddled in their uniforms around Bob, you could smell the attics and footlockers of Americans opening up for what may be a final reunion for many of them. As you looked around the mall, you could almost see these old heroes evaporating up through the sun.
There were hundreds of memorial encounters. Veterans, active duty soldiers, families and kids seeking autographs. One young aspiring Tom Brokaw, probably 10 years old, in a white dress shirt and khaki pants approached Bob with his note pad and asked, 'Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?'
Bob, who loves kids, really enjoyed the attention.
A family was expressing their thanks as one of their children, who looked to be 3 or 4 years old, noticed Bob's legs were gone. The child seemed intrigued and Bob encouraged his curiosity. His mother looked on, a little mortified. I knew what was coming, as I had seen this scene played out with several generations of nieces and nephews.
The child looked up Bob's pants legs and asked, "'Where are your feet?'"
"'I left them in France,'" Bob said.
There were a couple of 80-somethings dancing on the mall to '40s music. Water stands were everywhere, and many volunteer medics walked around making conversation as they checked the crowd.
There was the story the next day in the paper about the World War II veteran who awoke in an ambulance, refused treatment, grabbed his cane and jumped out. Well, of course.
There were lots of speeches during the dedication and the veterans paid special attention to former President George Bush, former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, Tom Brokaw and Tom Hanks, the latter two having obtained through their talents some mantel of credibility.
And, of course, there was the upgrade to first-class during Bob's flight on Northwest Airlines, the applause on the plane, the FBI agent who carried Bob's suitcase and escorted us through Reagan National Airport, the thousands of handshakes and expressions of heartfelt thanks, the impromptu motorcycle police escort to Arlington National Cemetery, the picture of Bob in the Sunday, May 30, Washington Post and on and on.
"'I'm completely overwhelmed," Bob said on the plane back to Little Rock.
Bob died this year. He was buried at Arlington
National Cemetery in Virginia.